Can a rescue organization claim a dog as their own for its entire life?
October 11, 2012 6:38 PM   Subscribe

How much legal weight does a shelter dog adoption agreement carry if the original adopter (who signed the agreement) has died?

My friend was a lifetime dog owner. He also had leukemia. When his last dog died of old age a couple of years ago he was in two minds as to whether to adopt another rescue due to his health concerns. It was clear that he would love to be able to have another dog and that having that other dog would make a vast difference to his quality of life so my wife and I as dog lovers and his friends suggested that we become godparemts to a new dog so that if anything happened to our friend he'd know that we would look after and love the pup. So that's what happened.

Fast forward to today and my friend died a couple of months ago, the dog is snoring comfortably on the couch next to me and has slotted right in with our little pack (me+wife+other dog)

Now it seems the rescue organization is making noises to my friend's family about taking the pup back. it seems from the adoption agreement that they "retain superior title" to any dog they adopt out and as such can ask for him back under any circumstances.

Clearly I don't want this to happen. I made a promise to my friend and the little guy is part of our family now.

So my questions are;

Does anyone have any experience of this?
Can a rescue really claim superior title for the entire lifetime of a dog?
Any suggestions?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of breeders and rescues will make it a part of the adoption contract that if the owner is unable to care for the dog for any reason, the dog is re-homed by the shelter or breeder. You can consult with an attorney if you'd like, but the simplest approach (and the one I would take) would be to invite someone from the organisation to do a home visit with the expectation that everyone will agree the dog is well homed and any conflict can be avoided.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:46 PM on October 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

Suggestion: Reach out to the shelter and explain the situation, fill out their application, and in any other way demonstrate that you're an ethical dog owner. If they still object after that, then escalate, but it may be that complying with their basic demands will reassure everyone that the dog is fine (which it sounds like he is!).
posted by jaguar at 6:47 PM on October 11, 2012 [10 favorites]

It's hard to answer this question without knowing if he signed a contract that allows the organization to repossess the animal and under what circumstances. Some of our local rescue organizations and breeders have adopters/buyers sign contracts that do indeed give them the right to repossess an animal if the contract has been breached in some way.

I like jaguar's advice with the caveat that if they showed up to my door demanding the dog back without offering me an opportunity to show my worth as an owner or fill out an application, I'd personally tell them to stuff it.

Some breed rescue organizations are particularly strict about their conditions for adoption--fenced in yards, one person at home all day, breeding regulations, etc--so I would look at their current requirements to see if you meet them before contacting them. I'd also try to find out if there is a contract--if you can't find one that your friend signed, you may be able to get a copy of a current contract from their web site to get an idea of what may be in it.

If there's no contract? I doubt they have a leg to stand on. IANAL.
posted by xyzzy at 7:00 PM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

What does the contract say about this situation? How do they know the dog you have is that dog? How would they even find you? Maybe your friend's family heard you moved to New Mexico. Or France.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:37 PM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I will not comment on the contract, as I am not a lawyer, and I don't know what the contract says.

That said, I would be exceedingly surprised if an animal shelter organization had the money, none the less the will to spend the money, to take action against you if you are a reasonably competent pet owner (which it sounds like you are). To be quite honest, I would just ignore them until the police show up or they sue you.
posted by saeculorum at 7:52 PM on October 11, 2012 [11 favorites]

Appeal to their sense of the dog: you're trying to keep the dog around its existing friends. I mean, you're its godparents, they'd have to be insane to give you a hard time about this.
posted by rhizome at 9:18 PM on October 11, 2012

It all depends on the contract. There was a well-publicized incident a while back where Ellen DeGeneres gave an adopted dog to her hairdresser and the rescue organization repossessed the dog. They grabbed the dog while claiming to be on a "home inspection" of the new owner. They would need to do that because they have to have permission to enter your property to grab the dog -- they can't trespass in order to enforce their property claim. I wouldn't let them be in the same room (or building!) with the dog if I were you. You can try to negotiate with them, if you get the sense from your friend's family that they are reasonable. Some organizations aren't and you might be better off if they can't find you. Should they actually be willing to take you to court over it, there are a lot of angles you can use to defend yourself -- they have to be able to prove it is the same dog (probably by microchip) and there are a lot of ways they could have screwed up the contract.
posted by Lame_username at 1:36 AM on October 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

I just adopted an animal and I can confirm that in the documents I signed, that's exactly what the contract says. At least mineā€”it has language that ownership returns to the society if I die or something happens; that I can't just give the pet to someone else, it would go back to the society. Basically, exactly what you heard. It freaked me out a bit thinking that they could just come and reclaim her at any time, but it hasn't been a problem. (yet?) But I agree with the first couple of answers that you should contact the organization and explain the situation and go through the process of home visit/paperwork. You will probably have to pay an adoption fee, but hopefully they will agree that this is an easy placement in a good home for the dog.
posted by Eicats at 6:42 AM on October 12, 2012

Whether or not the portion of the contract requiring the animal be surrendered survives forever depends greatly upon the laws of your state. This will sound harsh and uncaring, but animals are considered basic property in every state* and so they will be subject to property laws for repossession and retaining interests after a sale. If you live in a state with a heavy rural or agricultural tradition (generally states in the south, southwest, or west), repossession of an animal is difficult, especially if a loan was not used to buy the animal or the property upon which it lives. Additional steps may also be required for a retained interest (sometimes, but not the same thing as, a security interest) to be valid. Remember that people can write contracts that sound very solid and intimidating but that are contrary to statute or rights.

I'm not a lawyer and this is my layman's interpretation, so I haven't been too specific. Try to work it out over the phone or, if things get testy, in writing first. If not, and you truly want to keep the dog, lawyer up for some property law advice and strongly-worded letters.

* This is why you can't leave your cat $5,000,000 in a will but you can leave a trust entity $5,000,000, stipulated on the premise that it hire a caretaker to feed, shelter, and pay attention to the cat. Since the trust is an organization of your creation, you can make it do pretty much whatever you want. Estate law: Because property law was just too easy.
posted by fireoyster at 8:08 AM on October 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not a suggestion but GOOD for you for taking care of the pup and not abandoning him.
posted by pakora1 at 12:52 PM on October 12, 2012

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